It’s only actually repeated twice – in husky monotone over the middle of opener “The Sing” – but the pronouncement’s barstool drowse seeds the Dream River‘s aesthetic. The slow pace of Dream River makes it feel like Bill Callahan is drawing one deep breath across the album’s entirety, the exhalation of which must smell like wheat, domestic beer, and small clatter of chest hair clinging to a denim shirt. For this reason, and for others that a word limit won’t let me get into, Dream River is an album that feels like it’s been developed for the sole purpose of its own mythologizing; a problematic notion because while Dream River is a compelling collection of guitar songs, it is not the kind of indie rock foundation myth Bill Callahan is in the rare position of being accustomed to producing.
Dream River is too thematically redundant for me to assert that it will ever retroactively stand up to, say, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle – no matter how much more I’d rather listen to Dream River right now. And why wouldn’t I? It’s a great album, even if Bill Callahan has basically made it before. Marginal highlight “Javelin Unlanding” is such to the extent that it combines solo Callahan’s capacity for attentive but laid back songwriting with a surprisingly kinetic presentation. The flute parts might sound anachronistic or cheesy on their own, but in “Javelin” they play like gleaming tridents that tangle dangerously with the Spartan sword that is the guitar. “Small Plane” is similarly impressive, with a subtle sonic weirdness to it (the song attempts to force your focus in on the wax and wane of background static) that serves as a nice reminder that Bill Callahan isn’t just any 47 year old American post-everything troubadour. Do you really think Jeff Tweedy is capable of shit as dense as this? Of course he isn’t.
But Dream River is also not such a great album: Dream River is top heavy; a feature unfortunately common to works of similar emotional ambition (Dream River is not such an ambitious album in a functional sense, but this has been the main difference between Callahan’s solo career and his work as Smog, anyways). The album bottoms out with the morose (boring) “Summer Painter”, which chronicles one summer in the life of an itinerant handyman, including the events surrounding a hurricane. Here, the attention-grabbing flutes from “Javelin Unlanded” can be clearly seen as rather bland substitutions for less formal, more Kid A sounding melodic accoutrements. Dream River has played the same trick twice, and I’m not happy about it.
So what we’re left with is a chimeric thing of an album; what we’re left with is a decent hand being played early and being played often. What we’re left with are brilliant lyrical movements collapsing awkwardly over misshapen hurdles of aural form. The attempts at sonic variety on Dream River are much appreciated and in a few instances they are even refreshing, but the album’s exhibitions of variance are all basically identical, thus defeating their own purpose. If I’ve been a little harsh on Dream River, it’s only because I know how people are going to react to it. Its sound and its general epiphanous demeanor make it very easy to mythologize. But I’d rather we look at Dream River for what it is: an impressive endeavor, to be sure, but one that will probably amount to a hiccough in the golden larynx of Callahan’s career.
Are my expectations too high? Have I, in my attempt at bringing Dream River down a peg, inadvertently mythologized the rest of Bill Callahan’s musical output? To find out, go listen to Dream River; try to be only subtly impressed.